WASHINGTON - Escalating global threats from Russia to North Korea mean the U.S. military’s regional commanders must update war plans to incorporate the use — in the most dire circumstances — of nuclear weapons, according to the Pentagon’s latest Nuclear Posture Review.
The review responds to what President Donald Trump and military leaders say is an increasingly complex threat environment, and it acknowledges that prospects for further nuclear arms reductions in the near future are “extremely challenging.” Military leaders see China and Russia in particular as bolstering their nuclear forces, incorporating them into their strategic plans and taking more aggressive actions in outer space and cyberspace.
The review is intended to “ensure that our diplomats and our negotiators are in a position to be listened to when we say we want to go forward on nonproliferation and arms control,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters Friday. “You do so by having an effective, safe deterrent — and you have to look at each of those words.”
The Pentagon report also calls for development of a wider range of lower-yield nuclear weapons that can be launched from submarines and ships. The U.S. currently has about 1,371 nuclear weapons, down from a peak of more than 12,000 during the Cold War, and under existing treaties could raise that level to 1,550.
Japan’s Foreign Ministry praised the document Saturday, saying that it reinforced the U.S. commitment to extended deterrence amid the increasingly fraught security environment brought on by North Korea’s rapid advances in its missile and nuclear programs.
Critics who reviewed a leaked copy of the draft published last month in the Huffington Post said the administration’s approach is reckless and makes the use of nuclear weapons more likely.
“The risk of use for nuclear weapons has always been unacceptably high,” Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, said in an email. “The new Trump Nuclear Doctrine is to deliberately increase that risk. It is an all-out attempt to take nuclear weapons out of the silos and onto the battlefield.”
Under the strategy, regional commanders and military services leaders “will plan, train and exercise to integrate U.S. nuclear and non-nuclear forces and operate in the face of adversary nuclear threats and attacks.”
It also provides momentum to U.S. plans to modernize the “nuclear triad,” the capacity to deliver nuclear weapons via land-based missile systems, submarines and strategic bombers, an effort that is expected to cost as much as $1.2 trillion through 2046 for development, purchase and long-term support, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
While the review suggests there might be a broader range of scenarios in which nuclear weapons could be used, “there is no lowering of the nuclear threshold in this posture,” according to John Rood, the undersecretary of defense for policy.
Highlighting the perceived threat from Russia, a nation Trump has repeatedly said he’d like to work more closely with, military commanders will also have to develop “response options” against the country’s leaders if they initiate limited nuclear tactical strikes against NATO, Greg Weaver, deputy director of strategic capabilities for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Thursday.
“There are strong indications that our current strategy, posture and capabilities are perceived by the Russians as potentially inadequate to deter them,” Weaver said.
Trump signaled his interest in a broader nuclear arsenal soon after his election, when he said on Twitter that, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
About a month after Trump’s election, Russian President Vladimir Putin said his nation should “enhance the combat capability of strategic nuclear forces, primarily by strengthening missile complexes that will be guaranteed to penetrate existing and future missile defense systems.”
The Pentagon review was deliberately ambiguous about whether a debilitating cyberattack from Russia, China or North Korea would trigger a nuclear response. The leaked draft had hinted that it could.
“The United States will maintain the range of flexible nuclear capabilities needed to ensure that nuclear or non-nuclear aggression against the United States, allies, and partners will fail to achieve its objectives and carry with it the credible risk of intolerable consequences for potential adversaries now and in the future,” the administration said in the review.
In the last policy review, released in 2010, Obama said his Democratic Party administration would consider the use of nuclear weapons “in extreme circumstances” to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.
But Trump said the new review, or a guideline for U.S. nuclear policy for the coming years, develops capabilities aimed at making use of nuclear weapons less likely.
“It enhances deterrence of strategic attacks against our nation, and our allies and partners that may not come in the form of nuclear weapons,” he said in a statement.
North Korea was singled out as the “most immediate and dire proliferation threat,” ahead of Iran, which the review says could develop a nuclear weapon within a year if it abandoned a 2015 nuclear accord Trump has long criticized.
Weaver and Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, sought to emphasize the new document’s continuity with the 2010 version, with Selva saying it didn’t represent a “sea change.” The officials said the development of more low-yield weapons and clearer elaboration for when nuclear weapons might be used were the primary differences between the two documents.
“Deterrence and assurance have gone to the top of the agenda,” and there’s no emphasis as in 2010 on de-emphasizing nuclear weapons, nor is there an effort to boost their importance, according to Rob Soofer, deputy assistant secretary for nuclear and missile defense.
That didn’t assuage the report’s critics.
“Even though a lot of the words are the same,” the “fundamental purpose of the 2010 NPR was to reduce the role of the missions and numbers of nuclear weapons” and “move together with other countries” to reduce numbers,” said Joe Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, which seeks to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons. “They didn’t get there. They failed.”
“I think it’s a significant departure from 2010” and will “be understood and perceived that way by others who follow these issues and the international community,” Joan Rohlfing, president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, told reporters this week.
Under the review, the first low-yield weapon to be fielded would be a modification to what Soofer described as a small number of D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles built by Lockheed Martin Corp. Ohio-class submarines now carry as many as 20 of the D-5 missiles.
Each D-5 carries as many as eight warheads which, depending on type, pack from 100 kilotons to 455 kilotons of explosive power, enough to qualify as high-yield weapons. A modified D-5 would probably have 5 to 6 kilotons, said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.
The Pentagon considers any warhead with 20 kilotons of explosive power “low-yield,” said Kristensen. By comparison, the “Little Boy” atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945 possessed 15 kilotons of explosive force. “Fat Man,” dropped on Nagasaki three days later, possessed 20 kilotons.
Another missile which will likely take several years to develop and field is a ship-launched, low-yield replacement to Raytheon Co.’s nuclear Tomahawk, retired under international treaty. The navy will begin studies in 2020 to assess alternative ways to deploy the missiles on the 12 new Columbia-class nuclear submarines, the first to be fielded in 2031.
The Pentagon review and explanations by officials trying to distinguish between “strategic” and “non-strategic,” or tactical, nuclear weapons are at odds with previous comments by the top U.S. nuclear weapons military official, Strategic Command head Gen. John Hyten.
“I don’t agree with the term tactical nuclear weapon,” he told the House Armed Services Committee in March. “I just fundamentally disagree that there is such thing as a tactical nuclear weapon. I believe that anybody that employs a nuclear weapon in the world has created a strategic effect; and all nuclear weapons are strategic.”